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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Truth Tracker: Can the NDP take credit for improving pandemic benefits?

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TORONTO — COVID-19 has overwhelmingly dominated the political landscape since the last election. With another vote in a few short weeks, candidates are vying for credit for their role in ushering Canada through the pandemic.

A major part of the New Democrats’ campaign messaging is that Jagmeet Singh and the NDP were the ones who pushed the Liberal minority government to deliver more financial aid to more Canadians, more quickly. In a recent ad prior to the election announcement, the NDP claims Singh leveraged the minority government to “force” Trudeau to provide help that exceeded what they had originally planned.

As a minority government, the Liberals under leader Justin Trudeau needed opposition support in order to pass legislation. This gave opposition parties room to negotiate demands in exchange. So were the NDP really the catalyst in significantly improving pandemic benefits?

THE CLAIM

Among the key claims: The NDP says they were the ones who told the government employment insurance (EI) would not be enough to help the majority of Canadians. They also take credit for getting the Liberals to double the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), for extending CERB benefits to 28 weeks from 16 weeks, and for raising the wage subsidy.

“With the wage subsidy, Justin Trudeau wanted to only cover 10 per cent of workers’ salaries. With 10 percent, that’s nothing. It’s a symbolic gesture. But we fought and we won to increase the wage subsidy up to 75 per cent,” Singh said in April during his 2021 address at the NDP convention.

“We saved millions of jobs. We’re the ones who did it. We also saw it with CERB. Justin Trudeau started with $1,000, but $1,000 is not enough to cover rent. We doubled CERB to make sure people could make ends meet.”

ANALYSIS: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

Days before Canada closed its borders, The Liberals presented its COVID-19 response, which included a proposal to waive the usual one-week EI waiting period for workers who needed to quarantine. It also said it was “exploring additional measures” to support Canadians ineligible for those benefits. Trudeau told Parliament they would “support Canadians right across the economy through EI but also through other systems.” Singh voiced concern at the time that the majority of Canadians would not have access to EI or paid sick leave.

On March 18, 2020, days after the border closures, the federal government announced a series of economic relief measures that included a proposal for a 10 per cent wage subsidy for eligible small businesses and income support of up to $900 bi-weekly for up to 15 weeks. 

Singh signalled his support with a letter to Trudeau the next day that he would “provide the necessary votes to pass these measures in Parliament” but urged for much faster access to the benefits. He also said that “offering 10 per cent of payroll up to a maximum of $25,000 is simply not enough.”

The NDP proposed several days later, on March 23, that the government directly give $2,000 to each Canadian and raise the wage subsidy to 75 per cent to ensure workers can keep their jobs. The Conservatives also issued a statement the same day calling for “significantly increasing the wage subsidy,” but did not specify an amount. 

Two days later on March 25, the government proposed legislation to establish the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which would provide $2,000 a month for up to four months for those who lost income as a result of the pandemic. CERB was meant to be simpler and more accessible than what was initially proposed.

While the NDP did ask for $2,000 prior to the Liberal’s announcement, it is less clear the Liberals were initially considering $1,000. We reached out to the NDP for clarity. Responding via email, an NDP spokesperson said “the Liberals were vague in public,” but that the government’s initial plan to use EI would have meant “about $1,000 a month” for many people. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), most people receiving EI benefits get less than the maximum allowed amount ($595 per week) and less than what CERB pays. In addition, the NDP pointed to the budget, which increased to $52 billion after CERB was created from the initial $27 billion.

Ottawa also announced on March 27 a 75 per cent wage subsidy for qualifying businesses. The day it was announced, Singh tweeted: “Business and labour leaders have been working with us to push the government to increase the wage subsidy to keep Canadians working.” Scheer also took credit, saying that the Liberals took his advice.

Meanwhile, Trudeau acknowledged during parliamentary debates there were still gaps that needed to be filled and that they were working with all parties to address them.

Fast forward several months to June, when the NDP withdrew its support for a bill that would punish those who knowingly made fraudulent CERB claims with fines or jail time. Around the same time, Singh also called on the Liberals to extend CERB, which was set to expire by the first week of July for the earliest applicants. Days later, Trudeau announced the government was looking to extend CERB, a promise that came as Singh indicated his caucus’s support for a key spending bill would hinge on getting an extension from the program.

There have been other instances where the Liberals reached a deal with the NDP to win their support. At the same time, Singh has also conceded the NDP has not always gotten everything the party has asked for.

CONCLUSION

In the early days of COVID-19, the three major parties were generally in agreement that Canadians and Canadian businesses urgently needed greater government assistance to weather the pandemic. The NDP did push for more specific demands, while the Conservatives were more vague, also focusing more on ensuring government accountability and demanding “sunset clauses,” or expiry dates, to be included in pandemic aid legislation.

It was the NDP who specified a 75 per cent wage subsidy, for example, but they were not the only ones asking for that amount — businesses and labour leaders, which the NDP themselves said they were working with, were also calling for 75 per cent.

It is clear that Singh and the NDP pushed for many of the key pandemic benefits Canadians ended up receiving, and in the case of the CERB extension, for example, specifically tied it to whether the Liberals would get the NDP support on a key vote.

But it is less clear whether they can take all the credit. While pressure from the NDP likely played an important role, the Liberals frequently acknowledged that helping Canadians and filling the gaps was an ongoing effort, opening the possibility that changes and expansions to the various programs and benefits would have occurred regardless, due to other factors and pressures beyond the opposition.

Edited by Michael Stittle

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